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[Page 127]


The Village of Ostoki

(Childhood memories)

Hinda Bleishtein [Wolfin] (Holon)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The village is located about half an hour's train ride from Rokitno. We seldom went by train because it was pleasant to go on foot. While walking we passed by factories producing fire-resistant building blocks. The Ostoki station was one of the last ones before the Soviet border. It was always humming with hordes of workers piling lumber on flat cars that were sent far away.

My parents, Yaakov and Dvoshe Wolfin, came to live there, as I recall, in 1920-21. It was the first and only Jewish family in the village. Later, the Berezovsky family joined them. They built a large sawmill in the village, but the family did not live there permanently. In the last years before World War II, two more families settled in the village: the Turoks and Nimoys.

The lumber industry grew and blossomed in the village. It was felt everywhere. The most important lumber merchants, Jews and non-Jews, used to come on business. My father and other Jews from the area also were part of the industry.

Although we were, at first, the only Jewish family among many non-Jews, we still kept our traditions and we received a Hebrew-Zionist education. We started in a cheder in the village of Snovidovich that had a sizable Jewish population. When we got older, we studied in Hebrew schools in Rokitno, Sarny and Pinsk. I recall that when I returned home for the summer holidays I refused to speak Yiddish or Polish. It was only Hebrew. My parents also spoke to me in Hebrew. My father taught in the cheder and my mother also knew Hebrew. A Hebrew island was created in a sea of strangers and exile.

I remember well the Jewish holidays and festivals that we celebrated with emotion and happiness. We, the children, went with our parents to Snovidovich where there was a minyan. We walked a distance of 4 kilometers there and back, but we did not feel tired because we were infused with the happiness of celebration.

Our house served as an inn. The Jewish merchants who came from many parts of the country refused to sleep in non-Jewish homes. Here they felt comfortable in our family atmosphere. This is how we acquired many friends and acquaintances among the Jewish merchants.

In 1939, when the Soviets occupied the village, we moved to Rokitno. The clock did not stop ticking and events developed at a dizzying pace. The year 1941 came, when the war broke out between the Germans and the Russians. The Soviets retreated from Rokitno and the Germans came in their place. My parents, brothers and sisters remained in Rokitno. I escaped to Russia. Even in 1941, I knew no one was left of my family. The world of my youth disappeared, but the memories live on. They reappear every day and thus my heart aches.

[Page 128]

The Village of Osnitzek

David Shuster (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The village lies at a distance of about 5 kilometers from Rokitno on the river Lwa that flows into the Slutz River. There were about 120 Ukrainian families and very few Jews. There were only four families: Shuster, Greber, Trechter and Sheinman. They included several tens of people.

The village of Osnitzek was unique. There is an aura of history in it since an ancient Jewish cemetery is located there. Everyone wondered and asked why there was such a large and ancient cemetery there. It was said that the Jews in all the villages in the area did not bury their dead in their own villages, but brought them to the nearest town. However, how can the existence of the cemetery in this village be explained?

My grandfather knew of a tradition, handed down from generation to generation, that Osnitzek was a remnant of a large town. This town had been destroyed during Chmelnitzky's time. Many Jews were slaughtered, many escaped to other locations and very few remained. Many bodies of the slaughtered were buried there and that is how the size and age of the cemetery were explained.

It was a district cemetery. The departed of Rokitno, Sahov, Tomoshgorod, Klesov and Stariky were buried there- nearly all the villages up to Sarny. It is located in a beautiful area near the river and is overlooked by a hill. Even the trees growing there were as ancient as the gravestones – hundreds of years old. Many gravestones sank in the soil due to age and the graves disappeared. Often, when a hole was dug, human bones were found and the hole would be immediately closed.

Since the cemetery served many settlements, there were many funerals. There were especially many more during Petliura's time. I remember, in particular, the funeral of David Zunder who was killed by the Petliurans and also his brother Aharon's funeral.

The economic situation of some of the Jews was good. The Shuster family leased the water mill and many fields from two noblemen, the Sichovsky brothers. They lived in nearby Tomoshgorod. The income was substantial. My family was able to do this leasing thanks to my grandfather, Mordechai Shuster, who was the administrator of these brothers. When they were young children he used to transport them by wagon from Tomoshgorod to school in Rovno. When they grew up, the relations between them and my grandfather were even stronger. They liked him and they put him in charge of their house and everything they owned. They did not dare make a move without him. They would only sell or buy after consulting with him.

The Greber and Sheinman families were poor and indigent and made their living in small trade. They had a tiny store where they sold kvass (fermented juice made out of bread), bagels, tobacco and all kinds of notions.

There were no great scholars among the village Jews. Their knowledge was limited to what a Jew needed to ply his trade. Since my grandfather was wealthy, he had a better understanding of the world. He brought brides for his sons from distinguished families in Olevsk. These brides brought a new atmosphere in the education of the village children. They did not like the low level of education of the village Jews and they wanted to give their children a modern education on two levels – religious and secular. They brought to the village urban innovations, which were full of western culture. They hired excellent teachers to teach their children. These were highly knowledgeable and experienced teachers such as Motel Shapira from Sloveshnia, Papish from David-Horodok and Kashtan from Bereznitz. The children learned Hebrew, Bible with Rashi interpretation and some Gmara.

However, this was not sufficient for the parents. When the children turned fourteen, they sent them to a Russian high school in Rovno where they learned the Russian language and absorbed western culture. This is how a large gap was created between fathers and sons. However, it did not cause a battle. The parents got used to the new trends and did not stand in their children's way.

The children were very happy. They did not feel the weight of living in exile. They enjoyed sunshine and nature. Their favorite place to play was the river where they spent after school hours during the summer. They practiced swimming and did very well in this field. They had contests in crossing the river. Each one of them was certain he would win.

Once an event occurred which could have turned into tragedy. I raced with Aharon Trechter (now in the United States) to cross the river. I arrived first and stood on the bank. I saw Aharon tangled up in the river current that was 4-5 meters deep. He was going to drown. I called for help and he was pulled out of the water still alive.

Another amusement and play place was the forest. It was a magnificent forest and it attracted all the children in the area. The students of Tarbut School in Rokitno and members of Hashomer Hatzair also used to come there.

There was no synagogue in the village, only a Shabbat minyan at the house of Nachman Shuster. For the High Holidays, a prayer leader would come from Bereznitz. I vividly recall the name of Kashtan, father of the teacher, who was a good prayer leader. He had a beautiful voice and I can still remember his melodies. I do not know if all the Jews in the village were Hasidim. I do know that my father was a Stolin follower. Whenever the Rabbi from Stolin went to Rokitno he would visit us.

I remember a childhood event that is both happy and sad. In 1913 Israel Shuster's daughter was married to a young man from Brezhne. It was a fancy wedding. The in-laws arrived in the village in a large convoy of wagons dancing and playing drums. However, the celebration stopped when it was discovered the bride's jewelry was stolen by one of the wagon drivers. She fainted in sorrow and there was a great commotion. The policeman came and he beat the Ukrainian who was accused of the theft. He confessed and returned the stolen goods.

The end of World War I marked the end of the "seven good years" of the Jews of the village and the lean years began. Their economic situation collapsed and they were at the edge of an abyss. The gangs of Petliura roamed the area and were killing people. They also came to Osnitzek. There were many fans of Petliura in the village. One day a group of murderers came to Nachman Shuster's house. They placed a bomb on the table and threatened to blast the house if all the money, gold and jewelry would not be given to them. Everything was handed to them in order to save souls. Many Rokitno Jews were hiding then in the village. They believed life was safer here, but evil followed them to their hiding place. These difficulties caused the Jews to leave the village. Their eyes were suddenly opened and they saw that they were sitting on a volcano surrounded by a wall of hatred. They deduced quickly that they should leave the village. The Sheinman and Trechter families immigrated to the United States and some members of the other families settled in Rokitno. Only the Greber family and Yeshayahu Shuster stayed in the village. They were killed during the Holocaust. Even my two sisters, Chaya and Genia, who escaped from the Rokitno ghetto to Osnitzek thinking the "good neighbors" would save them, died in the village.

[Page 130]

The Village of Borovey

Zillah Razgovitch [Gampel] (Petach Tikvah)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The village lies about 20 kilometers from Rokitno. There was a considerable Jewish population who lived together like one family. They were close and attached to one another and helped each other when in need. The happiness of one was the happiness of all, but when tragedy struck a family it touched the hearts of everyone. They all walked around sad and in mourning. These close personal connections were forged on the background of them being strangers among a village population of many non-Jews who outwardly were friendly, but in their hearts lurked a deep hatred of Jews. They waited for the moment where there was neither law nor judge to do with the Jews whatever they wanted.

However, until the terrible events began, the village Jews lived a quiet and peaceful life. They did not aspire to greatness. Their livelihood was comfortable and sufficient. All trade was in the hands of the Jews. There were five groceries and some notions stores. There were two blacksmith shops, one belonging to Meir Zilberberg and the other to Aharon Gendelman (Aharon the yellow one). Shmuel Shapira was a carpenter and the Polish public school was located in his house.

There were fifty Jewish children in the village. Obviously, these numbers could not sustain a Jewish day school and the children attended the Polish public school together with other village children. The parents sent their children to this school with a heavy heart since there head covering was not permitted.

The parents were not satisfied with the fact that their children should study secular subjects only and they made certain that they also studied holy subjects, so they would not assimilate and would maintain their nationalistic spirit. For that purpose, they invited a Hebrew teacher - Mr. Aharon Eizenstein from Karpilovka - to open a cheder in the home of Meir Zilberberg. The children studied secular subjects in the mornings and in the afternoons they studied four hours of Hebrew, Bible and Yiddish daily. The children were involved in learning for many hours a day.

When they finished their studies, the children did not waste their time. While they were still young, they were involved in the Jewish Scouts and spent their evenings in its activities. The organizer of the scout group in the village was Sonia Shapira, a member of Hashomer Hatzair. She was a graduate of the Tarbut School in Rokitno and she was also certified as a teacher in Ludvipol. She taught Hebrew to the younger students in the cheder and in the evenings she gathered her pupils in the basement, fearful of the locals, who equated the Zionist youth movement with Communism. They were forced to have their educational activities in secret, by the light of a gas lantern. Sonia used to read to her pupils letters from Zionist leaders and held many discussions about Eretz Israel. The devotion of the children to the homeland was finalized by putting five Polish pennies into the JNF box, which was hidden in a corner of the basement. The children were immersed in an Israeli atmosphere every evening.

It is difficult to evaluate in a few words the deep educational activity of Sonia, her devotion to her pupils and her great love for the homeland. Her hope was strong that she would be worthy of making aliyah with the children under her care. However, the skies of the world were darkened and all her hopes were dashed.

When the Soviets entered Borovey, Sonia left the village and went to her sister in Ludvipol, where she resided until the German-Soviet war broke out. When the Soviet army retreated, she escaped with Yakov Perlstein who had managed the Hashomer Hatzair branch in Borovey with her. No one knows what happened to her.

The village Jews did not oppose Zionism, but they saw in it something for the distant future; when that would be, no one knew. Their attitude to the new Eretz Israel can be summarized with a verse from Psalms: "If God will not build the house, it is in vain that the builders will toil". They believed that they would go with the Messiah to Eretz Israel. They were all followers of Rabbi Israel Perlov who visited his adherents once a year and stayed in our house. The Rabbi once saw a miracle. My father's legs were paralyzed and the doctors could not cure him. My grandmother, Rivka Perlstein, talked my father into going to Brezhne, to the Rabbi. He stayed with the Rabbi for three weeks, received a "cameo" (a special note to produce healing) and felt an improvement. On the eve of Yom Kippur, he felt well enough to go to services, leaning on his family members for support. After prayers ended, he stayed overnight in the synagogue. On the next day, he continued his prayers, in spite of the pain he suffered. When he returned home, after the fast, a great miracle happened - the pains were gone and he became himself again.

We did not have a shohet (ritual slaughterer) in the village and every Thursday and before holidays, Reb David, the shohet from Karpilovka, would come. After ritual slaughter was forbidden by the representative of the Polish parliament Mrs. Pristor, known for her anti-Semitism, the situation worsened and the shohet had to endanger his life and to slaughter a cow or a calf in secret. A dark shed was attached to our house and that is where the shohet did the slaughtering. We were once denounced and before the police arrived, a hole was dug in the barn, the meat was placed in sacks and covered with garbage. The blood was cleaned from the ground and covered with white sand to remove any trace. The police searched and poked and even went up to the attic. There they discovered hog's hair, which was used to manufacture brushes. There was then an inquiry, since the Jews were not allowed to deal in this hair. It was only through the intervention of the governor, who was a friend of the Jews, that a tragedy was averted.

In spite of the suffering, the fear and the oppression, the Jews of the village did not learn their lesson and looked at all these events as a necessary evil because we were in exile and we would have no respite until the coming of the Messiah. They followed the paved road of fearing G-d and adhering to righteous people and never thought about the changes in their lives or about their harrowing existence.

However, a very different change was approaching in giant steps and it came upon us as the Soviet Army occupied our village, after the Ribentrop-Molotov pact. The Soviets entered the village on a Sunday afternoon before Rosh Hashana in 1939. Planes appeared in the skies of the village and dropped leaflets that told us to identify with the authorities. We brought such a leaflet to the priest to read for us. He, a sworn enemy of Communism, angrily shouted: "These are the killers, the Communists, the enforcers. They say that they will free us from capitalism". All the boys and girls gathered on the porch of the school to welcome the Soviet soldiers. Two horsemen appeared, greeted us and continued on their way.

Suddenly, the earth shook. The children, who did not know what this strange roaring was about, said that "devils" were approaching and were terrified. In truth, a "devil" in the shape of a big tank approached and scared us. We thought the house would disintegrate. Soviet soldiers were sitting on the tank and they treated us kindly throwing ribbons, beads and other gifts. Following the tank was a column of tanks that were going towards the army barracks in the village. Immediately, an announcement was made on a loudspeaker informing all the citizens to attend a meeting in the barracks. Everyone came; no one was absent. At the meeting the residents were ordered to elect a local committee, which would manage all civil matters. The legion left the village with its armaments and only a few soldiers remained.

However, the Soviet occupation did not last long. When war broke out with the Germans, the Jews felt the earth burning and escaped to Olevsk in order to then escape into Russia. They suffered there for three months and could not go forward because the area was already surrounded by the Nazis. Having no alternative, the Jews returned to Borovey since they saw what the Bulbovtzis were planning for the Jews of Olevsk. However, even in Borovey the Bulbovtzis did not leave us alone and abused us by forcing us to do hard and menial labor. On Shabbat all the Jews were forced to take brooms and to sweep the church.

On the eve of Yom Kippur 1941, we were ordered to wear the yellow star. A ghetto was delineated, free movement was curtailed and no one was permitted outside after 8:00 P.M. In those days, the first victim in the village fell. One Sunday morning Aharon Gendelman wanted to take his cow to graze. A policeman warned him to return home. He refused to follow the order because he saw that my cousins, Batya and Shoshana, were brought from Olevsk to be interrogated about their contacts with the partisans. He lingered outside to see what their fate would be. His wife begged him to come in and he agreed to do so. As he turned away from the policeman, the latter aimed his gun, shot and killed him on the spot. The story of the killing reached Rokitno and filled the Jews with great fear. My father, as chairman of the village committee, traveled to Rokitno and reported details to the Judenrat. His words created worry and great sorrow.

Aharon was buried by the locals in a disgraceful grave in an abandoned field where horse were slaughtered and skinned. When the Jews were ordered to leave the village and move to the ghetto in Rokitno, we asked to be allowed to take his body with us and to give it a proper Jewish burial. The Judenrat in Rokitno intervened and permission was given. Together with these holy bones we left- men, women and children- knowing for certain that our fate was sealed.

This is how we permanently left the village where many Jewish families had lived for generations in an orderly manner. It is not only my home that was destroyed, but our common home, too, was ruined. Let them be etched in our memories forever and let their images always be in front of us.

[Page 134]

The Village of Bilovizh

Shmaryahu Kravi [Korobochka] (Herzliah)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The village of Bilovizh is situated about 25 viorsts from Rokitno on the border of the Soviet Union. It is surrounded by ancient forests full of pine, birch and oak trees. The name means white hill.

There were several Jewish families living in the village. They earned their living from the Ukrainian peasants who were in the majority in the village. Before World War I, when Poland was divided and conquered by foreign powers, Yoel Grinshpan and his family lived there. He owned the large inn in the center across from the Orthodox Church.

Grinshpan's inn was the center of village life. The peasants met there to exchange news, to do some business, to arrange marriages and even to elect the mayor. The inn was open to all travelers. The few Jews who came through the village on their way to town found there a resting place and even a meal to satisfy their hunger. The owner of the inn was an observant Jew who studied Torah constantly. His family was related to many other families. Some left the village and settled in Rokitno, Stolin, Visotzk, Dubno, etc. Others stayed in the village in spite of the threat of World War I, the Petliura and Bulbovtzis gangs and the destruction of the inn. Thus, three families remained, among them my father, Moshe Korobochka whose wife was a Grinshpan.

My father was an observant Jew, a follower of the commandments. He worked and studied Torah. He was a well-built Jew, clean cut and presentable. He served in the Tsar's army in the Russo-Japanese War and he was injured in Port Arthur and taken prisoner. He often told the story of his conscription and of the attempts of others his age to avoid the service by maiming themselves. He refused to maim himself and preferred to serve. He came out healthy having maintained his Jewishness.

He was handy in many fields and was an all-around man. Although he made his living from a general store, he also managed a farm. Not many of the Jewish farms in the surrounding villages could compare themselves to father's farm. The peasants in the area valued him for his diligence in plowing, sowing and harvesting. They also liked him for his goodness and hard work.

Traveling from the village to Rokitno was done by horse and buggy or by a small train through Ostoki. From there the train service was regular on a direct line from Ostoki to Kovel through Sarny. In the area there were other villages where many Jews resided. They kept in touch and met on holidays and celebrations. The village of Blizhov was located 12 km from Bilovizh. There were many Jewish families there. It was an established Jewish settlement with an active Jewish life. They even had a ritual slaughterer who served the Jews of the surrounding area: the village of Zolovey with two Jewish families, the village of Snovidovich on the crossroads to Rokitno with a sizable Jewish population, and the village of Toupik, about 6 km from Bilovizh which had a Jewish agricultural settlement headed by Yakov Freger.

My father's house was open to all comers. He performed the mitzvah of welcoming guests with all his heart and soul. He could not be happier than when a guest stayed overnight or for Shabbat. In 1928-1930 many refugees came through the village from the Soviet Union. There were Jews among them and they always found a meal in our house.

Since the village was close to the border, the Polish Army had guard stations there in addition to a unit that stayed there permanently. It was a unit of border patrol (K.A.P), which was not innocent of anti-Semitism. It followed the general enmity towards Jews that pervaded the Polish security departments. The Jewish soldiers in the unit soon became familiar and welcome figures in the Jewish homes in the village.

The residents of the village had agricultural farms. In the winter they worked in the forests in the area because there was always plenty of work. The lumber industry was highly developed and many large businesses were interested in it.

The residents of the village were calm people. They did not hate Jews. They saw the Jews as equals and treated them with friendship. They even protected them in bad times.

I can never forget Shabbat and holidays as they were celebrated in our home. The village Jews walked to nearby Toupik for services. There a minyan was held in the home of Yaakov Freger because there was a Torah scroll. On the eves of holidays and Shabbat (except for the High Holidays when all the families would move to Toupik), my father always took care of the Eruv (border). He would send one of his sons, on horseback, to place the marker mid-way on a tree, as is written in the Shulhan Aruch.

On the High Holidays my father led the services and the prayers. He was famous in the area. His clear voice and pleasing tunes were beloved. His praying came deep from within and his pleas to G-d made everyone shiver. I was a young child then and even when I grew up I could never forget these haunting prayers of the High Holidays.

I still see my father covered in his white and shiny robe during Hineni. When he reached neilah (closing prayer), in spite of the difficult and tiring fasting, his voice did not give up and it spread everywhere as he chanted "Open thou the gates of heaven" and "Help us thou, our saving G-d". One would be completely shaken and fearful of the angels who were descending to take back with them the prayers of the leader.

The trip to Toupik was an outstanding experience for us, the children. The road led between tall trees whose green tops almost obscured the sunlight. There were many wild birds among their branches and the squirrels jumped over our heads from tree to tree. Even the fields on both sides of the path presented a holiday atmosphere with their golden sheaves moving as if honoring the Jewish holidays. Serenity was felt everywhere. It was sometimes interrupted by birds chirping. They, too, were enjoying the beauty of nature and the vast spaces.

The adults walked slowly and talked about holy matters. Their main topic of debate was the weekly portion and its various interpretations. We, the young ones, were fascinated by stories of miracles of our great saintly people. We ran ahead along the railroad tracks.

My father was a follower of the Stolin rebbe, Rabbi Moshele, of the Karlin dynasty. He went to his house during the festivals and accompanied him on his visits to Rokitno and the surrounding villages. The Rabbi's teachings were sacred to him and he trusted him implicitly. I remember well the visit of the Stolin rebbe who stayed in our new house in Rokitno. During the week of the rebbe's visit the town was enveloped in an atmosphere absent of worry, full of happiness and joy. The feasting went on every night past midnight. The followers stood out everywhere with their black robes and raised hats.

My father lived a simple life. He raised his children to follow tradition, work hard and to love mankind. The verses such as "Next year in Jerusalem", "Our eyes will see your return", "I will not be silent when it comes to Zion", were meaningful and real in our home. All his children found their way to Zionist organizations because their love of Zion began with these prayers and wonderful stories which our father used to tell us on winter nights as we sat with a cup of tea and we absorbed every word he uttered. The redemption of the Jewish nation and its revival in its homeland by the Zionist movement did not seem to him to contradict his belief in the coming of the Messiah.

There was a special atmosphere in our home from the moment Shabbat came until it ended. All meals were accompanied by singing. There was a special aura in the house that even created respect in the hearts of the peasants. When Shabbat ended there was always a long line of people waiting for the store to be reopened. While they waited they enjoyed the singing that emanated from the house during the Third Meal.

Years passed and times changed. Polish nationalism reared its ugly head. All the minorities in Poland shared in suppression and discrimination. Anti-Semitism grew and engulfed all the towns and villages of the country. It even reached us. Those same serene and good-hearted peasants, so to speak, who lived in harmony with the Jews and respected them, suddenly discovered that the few Jews that lived in the village were the cause of all their problems. The propaganda by the Jew haters told them the Jews sucked their blood and lived off them.

This propaganda of venom did not miss our house and my father fell victim to it. The plotting began on economic grounds. A Polish anti-Semite settled in the village. At first he served in the police and with his wife, a convert, plotted against my father's standing. These were times ripe for all plots and slander. One day, my father was accused of circulating a story that Jesus was illegitimate. This slander was spread throughout our district. My father was arrested and imprisoned in Rovno. He was freed only after a costly bond was posted. His trial took a few years and he was sentenced to a year in jail. After an appeal, he was exonerated by the Supreme Court in Warsaw with the help of a famous brilliant Jewish lawyer called Rotfeld. He admitted that my father did tell the story, but it was done quietly, in his own home and not in public.

Another tale of slander against my father was that, supposedly, he was seen, on May 1, on the Soviet side of the border playing cards and drinking vodka with the Bolsheviks. This was obviously an invented tale. The investigating authorities terminated the case before it became a legal accusation.

The atmosphere of those days suited the Jew haters. This was during Hitler's rise to power. The poison of hatred overflowed the borders of Germany and the Jew haters knew they were operating on fertile soil. An administrative order was issued against my father forcing him to leave Volyn. He was not even permitted in any settlement close to the Soviet border. The order was given just as the war broke out. My father was forced, in spite of his advanced age, to abandon his family and his home. He took a stick in his hand and began to wander in exile, all alone.

His exile did no last long because when Poland collapsed, my father returned. He did not return to the village because we had sold everything and moved to Rokitno.

A day after Rosh Hashanah, a few days after the war broke out, the Red Army entered the village. It was quite a paradox. My father, an observant Jew, who knew well about the stance of the Soviets against the Jewish religion, gladly welcomed the soldiers of the Red Army who entered singing and dancing.

However, my father, as all the Jews of Rokitno, did not know that the sound of celebrations was misleading and that the Holocaust was waiting for us. My father escaped from the market square together with his daughter Freidel. He sought refuge with the peasants of Bilovizh, but the Lithuanian murderers found him there. He was killed standing at morning prayers covered in his prayer shawl and wearing his tefillin. His only daughter stood next to him. They were both killed in the village where my father had lived most of his life. He was buried by one of his friends somewhere in this village in eastern
Ukraine.[1] The grave is abandoned and covered in weeds and we could never find it.

The Village of Blizhov

Aharon Blizhovsky (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The village of Blizhov is situated in the forests of Polesia on the banks of one of the streams of the Prift-Stviga. During the Tsarist regime the village was part of the Muzir district, Province of Pinsk. On the other side of the Stviga was another province – the province of Volyn. Across the Stviga there was a wooden bridge built by the Russian engineering corps. The land in the area belonged to the Radziwil family of noblemen. One of its palaces, Josephine, was located there.

At the beginning of the 19th century, it seems Nachman, son of Yehudah Blizhovsky, came from David-Horodok or thereabouts. He leased the village and its income from the nobleman. The peasants tell that it was Yehudah, Nachman's father, who had begun relations with the villagers and he was known as a holy man. It was said that anywhere he stepped, a good crop would soon grow. The family lore says that Nachman could not pay the nobleman. He crossed the river and built a wooden shack on government land near the forests. At night he and his wife locked themselves up in the shack and listened fearfully to the howling of the hungry wolves in the nearby forest.

The descendants of Nachman, who was called Blizhovsky after the village, lived for over 100 years in Blizhov and its vicinity. Akiva, Nachman's eldest son settled in Glinna and his second son, Yosef, (he took the name Perlovich to avoid army service), studied Torah and his wealthy brother Shalom supported him.

At the beginning of their residing in Blizhov, the family earned their living by selling sacramental wine, buying dried mushrooms, pig's hair, pelts, etc from the peasants and selling them in the markets of nearby villages Olevsk and Turov. At the end of the 19th century Shalom Blizhovsky began to deal in lumber. He bought entire forests from landowners in the area. In winter the peasants cut down the trees in the forest and brought them to the riverbank. Shalom used to travel to Kiev and other cities where he met important lumber merchants and sold them his lumber. He returned to the village for Shabbat and holidays. It was said that he did not know the names of his many grandchildren and would ask: "Whose child are you?"

In the 1897 Russian census there were 62 Jews in Blizhov against 565 Russian Orthodox citizens. Relations between the Jews and the others were good. The poor farmers had respect for the lumber merchants since they earned their living in their forests.

The Jews of Blizhov were extremely hospitable. A story is told about Hodel, Yosef Perlovich's wife. She used to go out to the crossroads to invite people to her house so that she could properly fulfill the mitzvah. Tradesmen and wandering peddlers and simple poor people used to spend several weeks in the village enjoying the hospitality of the Blizhovskys.

The members of the Blizhovsky family lived in a circle in the center of the village. Their houses stood out in their size and beautiful shape as compared to the shacks of the peasants. The synagogue stood among the houses. It was a nice wooden building. There was a mikveh that served all the Jewish families in the surrounding villages. Special questions were posed to the Olevsk Rabbi and the dead were buried in the cemetery in Glinna.

The Blizhov Jews were followers of the rebbe from Stolin. Once a year he visited his followers in Blizhov. The Jews of Blizhov and vicinity prepared for several weeks for the visit. When he came, everything else was forgotten; all would crowd into Shalom or Yosef's house to hear words of Torah from the rebbe, sing with him and eat leftovers from his meal.

The rebbe influenced the Blizhov Jews to hire the best teachers for their children. The second generation sent them, especially the girls, to the Russian elementary school in the village. There was also a Russian library in Yitzhak Blizhovsky's house. The young people used to borrow books there.

Shalom Blizhovsky was well known for his severity. It is told that a new official came who "did not know Joseph". He came to Shalom's house and was not respectful to him. Shalom immediately slapped his face and with his sons threw him out of the house. After the matter was settled with gifts and negotiations, the official was appeased. Shalom was more careful afterwards and he used to say: "I thought a 'little Jew', but it turned out he wanted to 'Jew' me". In 1916 Shalom Blizhovsky was killed in a road accident in Kiev. A car hit him as he was coming out of the hotel where he was staying. He was buried in Kiev. He was 73 when he died. Rabbi Israelke was then in Kiev and he took part in his funeral. According to family tradition, he threw the first spade of earth into the open grave and called out: "Shalom of Blizhov did not die. He is still alive and will live forever".

After Shalom's death, his five sons Nachman, Yehoshua, Avraham, Israel and Itzhak and Yosef's two sons - Asher and Aharon – continued the family partnership in the lumber business. However, the good years had ended. First came the civil war, which did not touch Blizhov directly. In 1920 the border between Russia and independent Poland was established and Blizhov was located a few miles from the border. The main artery of the lumber industry was cut. From then on, the business continued on other smaller roads. The most important of these was the train station in Rokitno. Lumber was transported to Danzig from there.

In 1924 Batya Benderski organized a preparatory kibbutz in Blizhov. It had twenty youths from Blizhov and surroundings. It lasted for about a year and the peasants were surprised to see the children of the Jewish merchants cutting trees in the forest. The young people did not find appropriate employment in Blizhov and they went to study in other towns, even as far as Vilna. Some joined Hechalutz and went to preparatory kibbutzim.

[Page 140]

The Village of Berezov

Ruhama Oliker [Gelfand] (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The village lies about 45 km from Rokitno. It was a district center serving other villages nearby. The district headquarters were there and residents from the area came on business. There were 15-16 Jewish families in the village. Most of them were wretchedly poor. Some had small grocery or notions stores and others were tradesmen. Each family had a tiny farm near the house. Some Jews were peddlers and they went to villages and hamlets with a backpack full of notions. They traded their merchandize for skins, mushrooms and wheat. These Jews got up early for work and took with them their talit and tefillin. They prayed in the forest because there was always an icon hanging on the walls of the homes. It was common to see a Jew praying alone in the forest wearing his talit and tefillin.

The peasants respected the Jewish religion and did not try to trick the Jews into eating non-kosher food. They boiled milk in brand new pots or roasted eggs or potatoes on embers. All this to make sure a Jew did not eat any forbidden food.

Life in the village was very active. The newspapers "Today" and "Moment" arrived regularly from Warsaw. Several families shared one subscription. The Sunday paper arrived on Tuesday. My grandfather, Israel Berezovsky, had a large house that was also used as a synagogue. Grandfather always led the services. In the last years of his life, when he was weaker, a prayer leader was brought from Blizhov for the High Holidays.

The Jews of the village were followers of the Stolin rebbe. Once a year, in winter, the rebbe toured the area villages. Then, he came to visit us also and he slept in my grandfather's house.

They were all Zionists and encouraged their children to go on aliyah. Their main hope was that because of a son or daughter who made aliyah, they too would do so. In the years before the war the wish to go on aliyah was even stronger. Those were the times when ominous clouds gathered in Polish skies.

In normal times the Jews did not suffer from their neighbors. They kept to themselves and did not mix with the others. They did not have any social contact with their neighbors. The peasants respected the Jews because they believed they were better educated.

Hospitality was quite evident in the village. Whenever a Jew came from elsewhere he would be fed and housed. This was not done for any reward, but out of love of Zion. My grandfather's house was large and became a hotel for guests. It was said of my grandmother that she never took the cloth off the table because there were always guests sitting around it. Any Jew who came to the village was immediately asked: "Where are you from, dear Jew?" A kind invitation followed to eat as much as he wanted. I recall distinctly a poor young man who went around the villages guided by a peasant. Once a year, he appeared in our village and, naturally, he never left empty-handed.

Before the Hebrew school was established in Rokitno, the youths studied in the local Polish school. However, the parents arranged for Hebrew studies by hiring a teacher. When the Tarbut School was founded in Rokitno, the local children went there. The trip to Rokitno was quite difficult. We traveled at night in a wagon pulled by horses or oxen. In summer, it was a very pleasant trip. Due to the heat we left before nightfall and arrived in Rokitno in the morning. The road went through forests. It was a slow ride. The forest was dead still. We, the children, feared wild animals because we knew there were wolves around. Indeed, we often saw the eyes of the wolves, which shone like lanterns. I loved the dawn when everything woke up. The stars would dim, a cool and refreshing morning breeze would blow and the birds chirped and sang. The driver who felt sorry for the tired animal stopped in the forest, collected twigs and lit a fire. We would get off the wagon, stretch on the ground, listen to the peasant's stories.

In winter, because of the cold, the trip went faster. It was pleasing to feast our eyes on the beautiful carpet of snow and on the branches that had buds and flowers. The frost made the sleigh screech. We turned over at times, but we loved and hailed it.

This is how the village children went to study in Rokitno. They wanted to receive a Hebrew education and to remain Jews close to their people. This closeness was planted in us from early childhood. The older ones among us organized a branch of Hechalutz that remained in contact with branches in neighboring villages. They would meet in Berezov for talks about Eretz Israel and read together the material sent in from headquarters in Warsaw. The younger ones, who started a Hashomer Hatzair group, believed in Eretz Israel, joined a preparatory kibbutz and made aliyah.

Suddenly everything changed. World War II broke out. The Soviets entered our village and dashed all our plans and our hopes. All the Hebrew books and all Zionist material were hidden in attics and cellars. Life had no meaning. These were purposeless days. We took the books secretly and looked at them, our hearts beating, afraid to be caught in our "sin".

We went through difficult times until we got used to the idea that we had no choice, that the authorities were in charge. It was hard to get used to youth meetings with non-Jews. The collectivity pulled the economic rug out from under the Jews. They were never farmers and they were no longer allowed to trade and mediate. They were in dire straits. The village was slowly emptied of its Jews. They moved to Rokitno with the hope of earning a living there.

rok140a.jpg [19 KB] - Common Grave in Berezov
Common Grave In Berezov
(250 Martyrs From Area Villages Are Buried Here)

This situation continued until the Russia-Germany war broke out. Jewish refugees who escaped from parts of Poland conquered by the Germans told us stories of the horrors the Germans had committed on the Jews. Rumors of a slaughter of the Jews in David-Horodok came, but we did not want to believe it. Two Ukrainians arrived in the village to plunder the Jewish homes and to arouse the local residents to slaughter us. However, decent Ukrainians kicked them out. After a while a Ukrainian police force was organized in the village. They abused the Jews and did whatever they wanted to them. This police of troublemakers established a ghetto in Berezov where Jews of nearby villages were locked up. The crowding was awful.

The Jews worked in the sawmill near Berezov and in other jobs of hard labor. The news about the slaughter in Rokitno came from my uncle Aharon Berezovsky and other Jews who managed to escape.

The appearance of a unit of security police in the Berezov ghetto made us fear that the fate of the Jews of Rokitno awaited us. The unit stayed for ten days and then departed leaving only a few Germans in place. They wore the skull insignia and this worried us. We asked the village mayor what it meant. In his innocence, he told us that some Germans were stranded in the village because their car broke down. This answer did not calm us and we feared what was to come. No one slept a wink. On the next day we discovered the truth. These murderers stayed in the village to organize the slaughter. Our fate was decided when ditches were dug at night outside the village.

It was a misty morning. We heard noises from the Germans. A Jew was lying near the window in our house. He peered out and began to shout: "They are coming!" Indeed, the Germans immediately appeared. They blocked all entrances to the house and began to shout: "Get out!" We were expelled from the house. I was the last one to leave. I tried to escape from the trap, but I bumped into a policeman who hit me with a gun handle. I decided that, no matter what, I would not be brought to the ditch. I was ready to die right there. I broke through the row of Germans and I began to run. I was followed by my oldest sister Sonia. My father, my mother, my little sister and my little brother stood embracing. My father was crying and said: "Children, stay near me!" He shouted: "Shema Israel".

My sister and I escaped to the fields and we reached the forest under a barrage of bullets. I discovered later that my family escaped to the forest where they remained for ten days until they were denounced to the Germans. Many other Jews from the ghetto managed to escape to the forests, but they were caught and killed. This was the end of the Jews of our village.

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